October 11, 2010

Uncommon Apples

This is Black Oxford, an apple with a distinct dark hue in its speckly russeted skin, and a crisp, sweet flesh.  You won't find it in your supermarket or at your farmer's market.  It was widely grown in the 1700s; the first written documentation of it is some time before 1790.

It tasted delicious, right off the tree, on a sunny October afternoon.

We were at Tower Hill Botanical Garden in Boylston, Massachusetts, home to an amazing collection of 119 varieties of apples that were grown long before the 1900s, and that survive today only because of a concerted effort to grow and preserve old apple varieties that otherwise would have been lost.  No Macs here, no Delicious, no monster waxed red globes.  Just the apples that our grandparents and ancestors grew and ate (or drank -- some are cider apples).

We spent a delightful afternoon traipsing through the orchard, while garden volunteer Rick Kimball picked apples off the trees, told us about the history of each, described each apple's taste and special attributes and then cut them up for us to sample.

In the 1930s a government work program was started to remove old apple trees from abandoned farmsteads in Massachusetts.  There were a lot of derelict old properties all over New England, the remnants of many farmers' failed attempts over two centuries to make this rocky land productive.  The trees harbored pests that infected cash crops and needed to be removed.

S. Lothrop Davenport headed up the removal effort, and he began to realize that if some of these old apple varieties --- some grown since the 1600s --- were completely removed, they would be lost forever.  He started saving twigs from the trees he chopped down, and grafting them onto rootstock, then growing them in his own orchard in the 1940s.

His orchard was eventually relocated to Tower Hill in the 1990s where they now spill down two hillsides as you enter the botanical garden property.  It is important for apple trees in New England to be sited on hillsides with a deep ravine below; in early spring the descending slopes trap cold air down in the hollow, sparing the tender buds on the trees higher up the slope.   The early spring bloomers are at the top of the hill, the later bloomers grow near the bottom.

The slopes of Tower Hill are the perfect place for Mr. Davenport's trees.  There are two trees of each carefully preserved variety, just like Noah's Ark.  They are grafted onto dwarf rootstock to make them easier to prune, harvest, treat and manage.  Volunteers do all the work.

The reason you can't buy these kinds of apples any more is that they don't store or ship well, they have to be eaten right away.  They don't all ripen at once so you can't bring in the farm crews and harvest efficiently in a week. Without massive spraying they have blemished skin and look terrible.  Would you buy this apple?
This is Tolman Sweet, grown since the early 1800s, and it has flyspeck and blackspot.  Neither condition affects the taste or safety of the apple.  It just looks bad and they don't market well.  It tasted wonderful.

If you saw these American Pippins in the supermarket would you buy them?  Speckled and blackspotted, they don't sell well, but they make delicious cider.

The volunteers use as little chemical spraying as possible, and they laboriously prune out all the crowding water sprout branches for better air circulation.  But you can't grow apples without spraying.  You will get zero apples. So they do hire crews to come in and spray for fungus and pests twice a year.  The limited chemical control means the cosmetic damage is left untreated.

The apple below is Pomme Gris, a dessert apple that has been around since 1822.  It looks golden in the bright sunshine, but there is a dusky blush on the skin that gives it a blue gray cast.  It is not as blackspotted as other apples, but it is very small, and you have to peel a lot to bake with it.  That made it hard to market.  But it has the most complex, sweet, delicious taste in each small fruit.

Rick took us through the orchards, snapping apples off about 25 different trees.  The early and mid season apples were gone by, but there were plenty of late season apples to sample.
Our little crowd happily followed him around the sunny orchard with our heads in the dwarf canopy and our feet tromping on the squished fallen fruit on the ground. We tasted each one as he told its history and provenance, and gave us a description of the texture, taste, bouquet and complexity of each.  Some were not as good (there is a reason they're no longer cultivated), but most were delicious, like no apple you have ever tasted.  All of the varieties were started or later crossed from saplings or scion twigs the early settlers brought from Europe; the eating apple is not native to the New World.

Sunshine, apples, breeze.  It was a thoroughly enjoyable way to spend a fall afternoon. 

Although Adam probably ate some other kind of fruit, it's clear to me why the Garden of Eden was thought to have an apple tree in it.


  1. I enjoyed reading this post! Great pictures of unusual apples!

  2. Hi Laurrie, I love this post. My grandfather had an old apple orchard in New Brunswick, Canada, and I loved to wander it and eat apples. I am so glad someone is preserving all those old apple varieties. What a wonderful day you must have had! :)

  3. Oh, Laurrie, that must have been a great afternoon. I have been craving an apple all day, and now the thought of biting into an historical heirloom apple makes my mouth water. I suspect some of those apples are more nutritious than many modern varieties.

  4. Very interesting! I have not tried any heirloom apples but would love to. If dwarf apple trees croak we'll probably replace one or both with heirlooms, just for variety. It's great that someone is preserving these apple trees.

  5. Garden Ms. S, What a nice memory of your grandfather's orchard.

    Deborah, I've been craving apples, too, since tasting all those wonderful ones!

    Sweetbay, if you do want to try growing heirlooms, Tower Hill offers scion twigs from their antique apples that you can buy (and do your own grafting!)

  6. hi Laurrie - nice that you finally made it to Tower Hill...an apple tasting sounds like a fine way to spend a sunny afternoon! Enjoyed this post and now I know why orchards are almost always situated on sunny ravines. Those settlers knew a thing or two about how to make the most of this New England topology!

  7. Thanks, Ellen. I thought of you as we drove through Worcester on such a fine sunny day!

  8. Laurrie, I have only just stumbled on your marvelous blog, with so many wonderful photos.

    Apparently we were both at Tower Hill last fall, and both blogged about it. I took the other tour, led by Joann Vierra.

    I have already linked to your blog post from mine, I hope you do not mind!

  9. Adam, thanks for the link. I am now thoroughly enjoying your apple blog and catalog... what a trove of information!


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